Fingers on the pulse

20th April 2007 at 01:00
Modern studies teachers have to keep up with political developments. But this session, they have to contend with a new Higher course and tackling the May 3 voting. Raymond Ross finds out how it's going Illustration: David Humphries

St Margaret's Academy, West Lothian

St Margaret's in Livingston has a strong modern studies tradition and is presenting 100 Standard grade and 70 Higher candidates this year. The Standard grade classes have been focusing on voting systems (including AMS, the additional member system) while the option on voting systems and voting behaviour at Higher is introducing senior pupils to STV (single transferable vote). These classes are spending four to six weeks on election-related issues which will culminate in a whole-school mock election (run in conjunction with the Hansard Society) on or near polling day.

"We contrast 'the newer systems' with the Westminster first-past-the-post system and stress the importance of voting to all of the classes," says Tracey Deir, principal teacher for curriculum and social studies.

"Some pupils grasp the complexities better than others, but pupils whose parents are politically aware are more up to date. It can be difficult to get the complex levels of government and different voting systems over, but many pupils know only the new system, since the Parliament was founded in 1999."

Although figures suggest that only 42 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the 2003 Scottish Parliamentary elections, senior pupils at St Margaret's are keen to vote and can't understand why folk don't.

The new West Lothian question for these pupils is "which level of government do I deal with if I have an issue? It's a good way to approach the ladder of councillor, MSP, MP and MEP," says Ms Deir.

Part of the answer was given to pupils by MSP Bristow Muldoon, who worked with a group of seniors on a national competition project, run by the Modern Studies Associa-tion - "How Does My MSP Represent Me?"

Like many modern studies departments, St Margaret's makes good use of local politicians, with visits to the Scottish Parliament.

Portobello High, Edinburgh

In March, Portobello launched the Hansard Society's mock elections hustings with the Scottish Parliament's Presiding Officer, George Reid, in the chair.

With modern studies a well-established subject, the school presents around 100 Standard grade, 50 Higher and 10 Advanced Higher candidates every year.

At Standard grade, they look closely at representation, including the role of MSPs, how they campaign and how they are elected. "There's a strong emphasis on participation, on the rights and responsibilities of ordinary individuals to encourage active citizenship," says Gordon Lawrie, principal teacher of modern studies.

Higher pupils look at election systems in detail, so much so that at the Hansard hustings they were absorbed in the mechanics of the STV system employed on the day, even examining what happened to the "surplus votes".

Most senior pupils seem politically interested with a small "p", while a few are party political animals. "Especially with the new Higher this year, you don't want SQA candidates distracted from exams. But the hustings proved to be good revision. The new Higher is a better course, no doubt. It has a lot of additional material and is more analytical, which is to the good. But with so much to cover, it is stressful for pupils and teachers alike," says Mr Lawrie.

Kelso High, Scottish Borders

Eschewing a whole-school mock election, Kelso chose instead a referendum to mark the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union. The result is that the Borders school is now theoretically independent with its own flag and its own currency (the Bawbee).

"It was fun and pupils learned a lot about Scotland, the UK and Europe with a good presentation from John Edward, the head of the European Parliament office in Edin-burgh," says Fiona James, PT modern studies.

But she also reports that Kelso pupils are quite sceptical about the Scottish Parliament and what it does. Many think it doesn't have real power. Most seniors eligible to vote will do so on May 3 but seem more "interested" than "enthusiastic".

Teaching about different levels of government and voting systems is "a challenge", but most pupils seem to grasp something.

Modern studies is going from strength to strength in the school, with 45 Standard grade, 40 Higher and five Advanced Higher candidates this year.

"It's successful and growing and, while the new Higher has a topic on devolved government which we do in detail, there's not too much time to go outside the syllabus with the exams approaching," says Ms James.

"But every pupil certainly knows about the Act of Union and some of the complexities of Scotland's devolved status."

Dollar Academy, Independent

If you think pupils have problems with political complexities, then what about the manwoman in the street? As part of their election preparation, S3 pupils from Dollar Academy took to Stirling High Street recently to ask passers-by if they understood the AMS and STV systems.

The answer was that, by and large, they didn't. But the ploy worked to the pupils' benefit. "As a result of their study, in order to ask the questions and judge the answers properly, the pupils now have a better grasp of the voting systems," says teacher Irene Morrison, who is chair of the Modern Studies Association. "They are looking forward to the election because they understand more about it."

Pupils have also had the benefit of visits from local MSP George Reid, list MSPs and local councillors to talk about the election and voting systems.

Dollar is presenting 40 candidates for Standard grade modern studies, 32 for Higher and 12 for Advanced Higher.

"The new Higher is working well," says Mrs Morrison. "The pupils are more focused on issues because it is more issue-based and analytical. I think it's making the pupils more rounded political animals.

"They argue more in class - that's an improvement - and I think the new Higher is more enjoyable, more rewarding to teach."

However, in a recent class discussion, the Higher pupils bemoaned the lack of distinctive policies among the parties, saying that politics seemed more about personalities and spin than about policies, and that politics was becoming "presidential" in that respect.

"A few say they won't vote for the main parties because they all seem the same. A lot think the Greens have different policies but won't vote for them because they won't get into power. They see a Green vote as a wasted vote," says Mrs Morrison.

Hillhead High, Glasgow

Hillhead offers Higher modern studies only and is presenting eight pupils this year. They focus on the election but it is not a central issue, given the approaching exams.

Pupils discuss the elections in class and several took part in a recent discussion which included a cross-section of city pupils with the First Minister at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Two pupils also attended a question and answer session with MSPs, including Nicola Sturgeon and Tommy Sheridan, at the Tron Theatre.

"To help combat the apathy factor, young people do need the opportunity to meet and talk with politicians," says John Milne, faculty head of social subjects. "Our S6 pupils are politically aware and are benefiting from the new Higher, which encourages them to identify socio-political trends and explain what's happening. As a multicultural school, we have to be aware that pupils from other countries can be confused by the different levels of government and we have to counter that, though it is amazing how quickly some pick up on this complex system," he says.

Forres Academy, Moray Modern studies is growing in popularity at Forres Academy, where there are 50 candidates for Standard grade, and 22 for Higher.

A mock election involving all the S3 pupils is taking place in the run-up to the election. The candidates are representing the main political parties and their poli-cies, and adding their own school policies.

Higher pupils visited the Scottish Parliament in September as part of their "Devolved Decision-Making in Scotland" topic, while Standard grade pupils approach the election through the "Living in a Democracy" unit, where they look at the different kinds of proportional representation systems.

"They seem to grasp it with the same difficulties as the general public,"

says Vickie McLaughlin, modern studies teacher. "Some pupils are more politically interested than others, but the mock election has definitely made politics come alive in the school - partly because of the dual focus on school policies and mainstream party policies."

Time management has not been too difficult as it's mostly S3s, and not exam classes, who are effectively involved in the election, but the new Higher is proving "challenging".

"Its analytical nature involves us in more essay-writing practice and we also have to make up our own practice questions, which the SQA does not produce. It's a challenging course for teachers, because the arrangement documents are vague," says Ms McLaughlin.

Leith Academy, Edinburgh

Leith is presenting 60 Standard grade, 20 Higher and two Advanced Higher candidates. The big election focus here is on S1, where they undertake a week of canvassing and hustings in the run-up to May 3.

S3 starts its "Living in a Democracy" Standard grade unit around the time of the election, making it topical, while Higher pupils are looking at the different voting systems in some depth and at party policies under the "Health and Wealth" option.

"About a third of the Higher paper is on political issues and a quarter of the Standard grade, so politics in general impacts on the students," says Nadia Steele, modern studies PT. "But at election time, I think pupils can feel saturated by the media coverage and, to be honest, a lot don't engage with politicians' personalities."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today